In 1940, American-built North American Harvard training aircraft are flown to just outside Canada, where they are towed across the border for use by Britain. (The procedure is necessary to avoid violating the Neutrality Acts, as the United States is still neutral.) Cocky American pilot Tim Baker (Tyrone Power) decides to fly across the border to Trenton, Ontario, and winds up in trouble with the military authorities, unconvincingly claiming he was looking for Trenton, New Jersey. Baker ferries a Lockheed Hudson bomber to Britain, pocketing $1,000 for his work.
In London, he runs into his on-again off-again girlfriend Carol Brown (Betty Grable), who works in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force by day and stars in a nightclub by night. She is none too pleased to see him, calling him a "worm" for his womanizing ways, lying, and long absence, but he is confident she still harbors strong feelings for him.
He decides to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Meanwhile, Brown attracts the appreciative attention of two RAF officers, Wing Commander John Morley (John Sutton) and Flying Officer Roger Pillby (Reginald Gardiner). Morley persists in seeing Brown, despite being told at the outset that there is another man. Pillby is unable to persuade either Baker or Morley to introduce him.
After completing training, Baker is disappointed to be assigned to Morley's bomber squadron, rather than to a fighter. He becomes further disgruntled when his first mission is to "bomb" Berlin with propaganda leaflets as Morley's co-pilot during the Phoney War. Pillby pilots another bomber in the raid.
When Baker is late for their date (sidetracked by meeting an old buddy from America), Brown accepts Morley's invitation to spend a weekend at his country estate. There, Morley asks her to marry him. When she tells Baker about it (without revealing who her suitor is), he offers to marry her himself, but in an insultingly casual way. She tells him that they are through. Back at the base, the two rivals learn of each other's involvement with the same woman. Before they can do anything about it, however, the Germans invade the Netherlands and Belgium, and they are given an urgent mission to bomb Dortmund, Germany, this time with real ordnance.
During the nighttime raid, their bomber is hit, disabling one of their two engines. Pillby descends to their aid, knocking out searchlights, but is shot down in flames and perishes. Morley orders his crew to bail out, but Baker disobeys and lands the aircraft on a Dutch beach. Spotting a line of German soldiers, they hide in a nearby building, only to be taken prisoner by a German officer there. A crewman sacrifices himself, enabling the other two to dispatch the German and escape by motorboat.
Baker wakes up in a British hospital, the victim of exposure. Once discharged, he goes to see Brown, pretending to have a broken arm, but blunders and shows himself to be a liar once more. Nonetheless, he produces an engagement ring and forces it onto her finger. After receiving a telephone call from Morley breaking their date, Brown informs Baker that all leaves have been canceled.
Reserves are called up to make up fighter pilot losses, and Baker is reassigned to a Spitfire for the Battle of Dunkirk. He downs two Luftwaffe fighters before being shot down. Carol cannot hide her distress when she cannot find out whether he is alive or not. Morley takes her to the docks, where ships returning from the Dunkirk beaches are bringing back survivors. When Baker debarks, Carol rushes to him and shows him she is still wearing his ring.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
With principal photography shot from April to July 1941, A Yank in the R.A.F. leaned heavily on the headline news of the Battle of Britain. The film begins with U.S. North American Harvard trainers arriving at the U.S.| Canada border at the Emerson, Manitoba crossing, as a means of complying with provisions of the Neutrality Acts prohibiting aid to combatants. The depiction of R.C.M.P. and R.C.A.F. officials meeting the aircraft as they were towed across the border, is a bit of Hollywood license, but the incident is otherwise, mainly accurate, albeit usually a team of horses rather than motor vehicles, did the towing.
The sequence of the Dunkirk evacuation filmed at Point Mugu, California, involved over 1,000 extras. The entire film was shot on Hollywood sound stages, Twentieth Century-Fox back lots and locations in California.
With complete cooperation from the RAF, as well as extensive use of stock RAF footage, the studio was allowed to film actual aerial battles shot by a camera-equipped aircraft. In the original version of the film, the hero played by Power dies at Dunkirk, but after the RAF expressed concerns that morale would be jeopardized, the scene was re-shot with Baker surviving. Herbert Mason, a recipient of the Military Cross for his gallantry in the Battle of the Somme directed the RAF flying sequences. He was credited as Maj. Herbert Mason.
In order to stage some of the airfield scenes, the prop department turned out a group of accurate replica Spitfire and Messerschmitt fighters to go along with actual Lockheed Hudsonbombers built in the nearby Lockheed factory at Burbank, California. All the flying sequences were under the direction of long-time Hollywood pilot, Paul Mantz, who used a team of stunt pilots including Frank Clarke.
The screen credits show "Tyrone Power with Betty Grable." The pairing of Twentieth Century-Fox's two leading stars, as well as cashing into bankable star-power, was considered an opportunity to promote Grable in more serious roles, although A Yank in the R.A.F. was really a melange of light romantic musical and wartime drama. According to Robert Osborne, Power felt Grable's song-and-dance numbers were out of place in the film, but Grable, believing her popularity was based on her singing, dancing, and bare legs, got her way.
Promoted as a light-hearted look at war, and despite the studio's insistence that it was not a propaganda film, A Yank in the R.A.F. was able to give prominence to Americans already at war, similar to other films such as Warner Brothers' Captains of the Clouds. The film was also notable in introducing Grable as the pinup favorite to the troops as well as giving her dramatic scenes that expanded her range; a crying scene reportedly took over six hours to film. When released in September 1941, A Yank in the R.A.F. was a popular film with audiences and critics alike. The New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther considered it a, "... thoroughly enjoyable show ... thrilling" and filled with "pulsing action."
A Yank in the R.A.F. was the 4th most popular movie at the US box office in 1941.
More contemporary reviewers have been more critical, decrying the unrealistic portrayal of a nation at war. Recent re-releases in video and 2002 DVD have similarly brought negative reviews concerning the content and filmmaker's approach to a serious subject.
A Yank in the R.A.F. was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (Fred Sersen, Edmund H. Hansen) at the 14th Academy Awards.
A Yank in the R.A.F. was released on DVD on May 21, 2002 in the United States and May 3, 2004 in the United Kingdom (followed by another edition on March 12, 2012). It was also released as part of the Tyrone Power Collection box set on September 4, 2006 in the United Kingdom.